Lila, the Divine Game
In Madina Lake, an invisible battle is raging in the air, in the streets, in the classrooms, everywhere. The war can only be identified by the sensation of a disarranged energy that convolutes the desired normalcy of everyday life.
That’s just the thing about Madina Lake. Everyone wants to be famous. We want to feel that our existence is louder than everyone else’s. The new souls trample each other in a quest to maintain their highly regarded social status, while the old souls lurk in the shadows, waiting for their opportunity to make a change. In this incarnation of the dual between good and evil, the artillery is far more dangerous than conventional weaponry. This war is being fought with minds. When the mind is used as a weapon, its casualties include more than just soldiers. Entire cultures are destroyed.
PART 1 THE AUSPICE
CHAPTER 1 THRILL
3am. The pouring rain and blasting thunder kept Jonathan awake. He had always enjoyed storms as a child, but now that he lived on his own, they were a bit unsettling. He had his radio dialed to a soft jazz station to aid in his slumber. The curtains in his humble downtown studio were no match for the streaks of lightening. They flashed in his eyes like fire at frequent, but irregular intervals. His thoughts drifted from one to another while he beckoned for sleep. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. An explosive flash struck a nearby generator. The old stone building rumbled and the lights flickered for a few seconds before the entire block turned black.
Sleep would be far off for Jonathan now.
As the storm surged on, he continued to lie in bed. The rain had put him in a hypnotic state, but the inconsistency of thunder strikes prevented him from drifting off.
Against the backdrop of the raging tempest outside, something else, something new, was vying for his attention. It emanated from within the apartment walls. It was a sound that at first seemed entirely imagined, but then grew undeniable. It was static from his radio. The radio that lost electricity from the unapologetic bolt of lightening, was now reaching out to him. It was gathering its power from a source Jonathan couldn’t fathom and didn’t dare to. As the volume increased, the radio desperately searched for a frequency. Heart pounding, he climbed out of bed and made his way towards it, guided by the green glow of the back light that illuminated the dial.
His skin grew cold, while he fearfully closed in on the radio. The noise tempered and locked into a frequency. There was a fleeting moment of silence. It would turn out to be the last spec of time before his life would be changed forever.
A soft ghostlike voice crackled through the speakers,
Madina Lake is a stunning place. Forging westward from the great planes, the terrain explodes into a mountainous labyrinth. Deep in the depths of this range lies the land of Madina Lake. Water pours from the enclosing mountainsides and races its way through town, nourishing the lush greenery and vibrant wild flowers that flourish here. The river and mountains provide a palisade from intruders in the unlikely event that this place was to ever be detected by explorers. Inward from the mountains are rolling hills and thick black trees that sway like a kelp forest in the ocean. The valleys collect fog from the mist that rises off of the lake. The actual lake serves as the focal point of the landscape. The lake is the jewel of this magnificent place. It occupies seven square miles within the town’s perimeter, accounting for nearly a third of its overall size. It is truly a hidden treasure.
Aesthetics aside, Madina Lake is trapped. Both physically by the dense forest that climbs its way to the mountain walls on each side, and psychologically by the fear that grips it. As far back as anyone can remember, rumors have persisted that just beyond the edge of town, under the camouflage of the forest canopy, dwell the “River People.” They are an esoteric group, their precise nature unknown. They are widely believed to be ill tempered, and threatening renegades. This supposition is predicated on the disturbed nature those must have to decidedly inhabit an uncivilized world beyond society’s fringes. This group bore the blame for anything unruly that happened in town. As an example, on seldom occasion, and as unpredictably as the weather, the town’s symbolic or valued landmarks would be vandalized under the cover of darkness. Nothing was egregiously destroyed, but the silhouette of a woman would be tagged on the doors, walls and windows of these locations.
The question though was moot, as any discussion about them was discouraged. The whole idea of the River People could just as easily have been a farce. It’s a convenient mechanism to scapegoat accountability by casting blame for unruly behavior and crime, outside of its borders. The community grew dependant on their faith in a self- idealized utopia. Generally speaking, the people of Madina Lake preferred to live in denial of their existence rather than to face a potential nemesis. Ambivalence towards the unknown requires just a hint of fear to prevent most in this community from venturing beyond the mountains that captivated them.
The town’s history is spotty. It’s a society that has become so obsessed with pop culture that few, if any, had an interest in documenting yesterday. The past doesn’t matter. Culture doesn’t matter.
There was no telling how long the townspeople have been around, and there was no desire to know. In Madina Lake, infatuation replaces love, obsession replaces connection.
CHAPTER 2 BEDAZZLE
Adalia lived in the upper floor of a split-level bungalow, just on the edge of the river. This style and location catered to her inscrutable lifestyle. She was able to maintain her privacy while taking advantage of the awe-inspiring landscape that she cherished.
Earlier yesterday morning Adalia was the recipient of an “Auspice.” That’s what people in Madina Lake referred to it as, when this strange occurrence would happen: With decidedly random, and rare frequency, a giant white balloon would wisp its way, from above the clouds, down to the grounds of Madina Lake. The balloon carries a letter for its welcoming recipient. The source remains anonymous through this day, elusively wax sealing the envelope with the initials “T.F.B.”
There is no aviation system by virtue of the fact that there is no demand for one, introducing a metaphysical element to this inexplicable phenomenon. People envy those who find or catch the balloons. It’s almost as if they were chosen with purposeful intent to receive the great message.
Across from Adalia’s bungalow was an expansive, sprawling green. There is a long twisting river that winds its way through the trees, cracking the earth in two. On Friday mornings, Adalia routinely strolled along the riverside and through the trees. On this Friday, as she emerged from the umbrella of branches, the giant globe made its decent through the sky, directly into her welcoming arms.
She enthusiastically raced back to her flat and burst open the balloon to discover her note.
“They have no hope, they have no soul, if you let them, they’ll take yours,” was inked on a thick piece of stationary using a calligraphy pen.
June 23rd, 1951
The previous night’s storm produced a beautiful summer morning. Jonathan woke up promptly at 8:00 am as his routine dictated. He felt particularly in tuned and energized. The events of last night left no spurious concerns or skeptical curiosity. In contrast, he had never felt so unbreakably unified, and connected to all of the elements in the world. He excitedly pondered the radio’s ability to channel enough energy to power on. That the town’s electrical grid was down meant that all radio frequency towers were unable to transmit, begging the question as to where the broadcast originated. Something metaphysical had dialed into his frequency. While perking his intellectual curiosity, it didn’t chink the armor of his resolution to the proposition at hand.
He picked up the phone and called into work.
“It’s Jonathan, I’m afraid I won’t be coming in to work today, something has come up that demands my attention. Send my regards to the class please, and assure them I’ll return tomorrow.”
Jonathan was a teacher in the Madina Lake school system. He generally flew under the radar within the adult community, but his students ardently revered him. His classroom filled up instantly at the start of each year. His teaching style was edgy and his students ingested and processed his every word before openly discussing the ideas. He created an atmosphere that was suspended of judgment, in which the students could confidently engage and speak their minds. He offered respect and a balanced connection to them that other adults in their lives had failed to.
Jonathan bore an insatiably curious mind, inspiring his remarkable cache of knowledge. He studied everything from math and science, to nearly non-existent subjects like physics and geology. As an example, this week he was scouring the library for literature on ancient Chinese culture and their use of the “I Ching” oracle to influence monumental decisions in their lives.
He had the intellectual capacity to be a professor in nearly any subject in the curriculum. A man of great integrity and passion, Jonathan’s livelihood was to learn and to teach. Becoming a professor has the obvious attributes of a higher paycheck and access to a wealth of resources, making Jonathan’s decision incomprehensible to most people. However, Jonathan rooted his path in something rare that spoke volumes to his character. He chose to teach the 6th grade level. In his exceedingly investigative curiosity, he believed the age of 12 to be the ripest for the mind. It’s a vulnerable and exciting time in which an evolving brain walks a very fine line. The adolescent is on the cusp of losing the sponge like quality of absorbing information, while imposed belief systems in their environment begin to hard wire. Jonathan can reel them in from drifting further from the purity of open-mindedness. This level also enabled him to diversify the subjects he instructed, instead of confining him to one.
Jonathan had an athletic build with toned muscles and broad shoulders. His blue green eyes were set deep in their sockets and respectfully fixed in on the eyes of anyone speaking to him. He was kind and selfless. Everyone was treated dutifully with dignity and esteem and without condition of reciprocation. He had a distinctive insight about others, displaying empathy when he understood someone’s plight and sympathy when he didn’t. Though, Jonathan didn’t tolerate an utter lack of respect from anyone, and would easily draw a hard line in the sand if he saw it necessary.
The community-style environment in which Jonathan had been raised was exceedingly diminishing. He’d been observing and studying this phenomenon for years and was still hard pressed to understand its cause. But of this he was sure, values had recklessly shifted. Adults were preoccupied with their own livelihoods and personal interests, and kids were left to tend to themselves. This generation, he worried, was frighteningly misguided and disconnected.
After Jonathan called his alibi in to his office, he began to prepare for a meeting that was to take place that evening. His ambivalence was washed away with confidence. He was chosen for a reason, and the idea behind it was something that intrigued him and resonated with his spirit. It was almost 5pm. He dressed in denim blue jeans and a black sweatshirt with a hood that draped over his medium length brown hair. Then he dug out some hiking boots from the closet and he was ready to go. Had he given himself pause to consider his actions, he would have been surprised at his poise in such an unusual circumstance. With unwavering conviction, Jonathan headed towards the town’s center point, Sapphire Square.
Two others were waiting upon his arrival, as he expected.
On the other side of town, Adalia sat in front of her vanity nervously folding a letter into its envelope. She’d been communicating with people in town whom she had yet to meet in person and perhaps never will. She blew out the candle allowing the wax drip onto the paper, sealing the message shut with her monogrammed “A” brander.
She was preparing herself for the Arlene Ball. Her stunning beauty was relentless, even behind closed doors. Adalia was a star in this town. In a place with no real access or curiosity to the outside world, she had become Hollywood. She had an inimitable charm about her that complimented her mysterious undertones. She was the town’s most delectable sex symbol, and their most admired confection. Adalia’s status was almost beyond mortal here, more like a Cinderella. Her enigmatic past offered no answers about her antecedents. Her life had been snatched up by the flash bulbs and cast into the media feeding frenzy since she first appeared to the public at the Arlene Ball last year. Prior to that event, there was little evidence that she had even existed.
In a few hours a car would arrive to pick her up. From there she would be taken to see her boyfriend Sheldon before they departed for the Ball together. She adorned a breath taking, white satin ball gown with black and red French lace. The dress delicately draped the ravishing curves of her body. She had sparkling green seductive eyes that sank behind her soft dirty blond hair. Her full, luscious lips were daintily outlined in red lipstick. Adalia had the complexion of an angel.
She dabbed a modest amount of perfume on her wrists and smeared them together. The light sweet smell of her favorite fragrance filled the room. Her elegance was unrivaled.
The Arlene Ball is an extraordinary, annual, gala event that draws more attention than any holiday. It occurs on June 23rd of every year. Although few can agree on its exact derivation, most believe Arlene was among the first, few hundred people, to settle in the town many years ago. It is told that she earned the annual affair in her honor by her unyielding commitment to build a society here. Her fellow travelers would surely have preferred to press on in a spirit of Manifest Destiny, while Arlene had another conviction. In her mind, life was not a pursuit for acquisition of material wealth and power. Nor was it qualified by measure of outward beauty or social status. It was about the individual and his or her relationship to the land and to each other. Arlene felt that happiness could only be achieved from within the self. It’s a journey of the mind, not to discover it, but to remember it.
The landscape of this quest is arbitrary, but by being transient, one can easily be distracted from the vocation. Especially when their directive had a decidedly aimless ambition. Until she was deemed as their voyage’s leader, the band’s quest was to forge across the land until the land gave way to the ocean. Arlene realized the futility and senselessness of that plan. What is ‘more’ going to achieve for them? How will it enrich the human experience? If a people live shackled to the promise of a better tomorrow, their only chance at happiness exists in the future, which is something that never comes.
Regardless, the land here is so intensely beautiful and serene, that it wasn’t difficult for her to persuade her fellow travelers to stay and create a society.
Although this was how the story was understood in the present day, these founding ideals had seemingly vanished. There were a few pockets of natives who still believed in this credo. But as time traipsed along, faith in this ideology was fleeting. Those who subscribed to this thinking were increasingly regarded as eccentric and strange. Among them was the exotic and endearing, Lucille.
Lucille was a fortuneteller whose calming essence fostered comfort in others. She received her revelations by channeling a mystical Elysium like alternate world as she looked into her ornately beautiful crystal ball. The fortunes were then whispered to her from a source in that world. Regarded in different ways, curiously divided by social class, her craft was either admired or borderline criminal. Some cast her as a fake, who sold a pack of lies to the desperate. The believers, however, adored her, and their lives were better for knowing her.
Even for the most reasonable conservatives, the magical nature of Madina Lake proved far too apparent to deny and legends ran wild.
Gripping thunderstorms were a regular occurrence in the town and often set the stage for mysterious nuances. One of the more prevalent legends was of a fairly like ghost who was often seen splashing about in the lake during these storms. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lucille, this apparition either emboldened her credibility or gave sustenance to the skeptic’s unease with her craft.
CHAPTER 3 ENCHANT
Immediately following his arrival, Jonathan and the crew headed off. Steadfast in their approach, the three briskly scurried along the riverside towards the edge of town. As the lights from the city replaced the sun, dusk had fallen on Madina Lake. Nothing about these three distinguished them from one another. They were relatively similar in physical stature, and their nondescript clothing drew no attention to them as they embarked on their mission. Their journey began at the same point in the heart of the city. They knew nothing about each other, except for the fact that they were all to meet at precisely 7pm in Sapphire Square. They were instructed to not speak a word to anyone about their task, including each other.
As the city faded behind them, they approached the edge of town. Among the silence, the trees came alive. A nervous anxiety was taunting Jonathan. Despite its desolation, this place felt eerily inhabited. They followed a vague winding dirt path that whisked them further into the unknown with every step. This was the point where the normal citizen would heed the folklore and turn around. These three shared an unyielding assuredness. The forest quickly thickened and swallowed the remaining scraps of daylight. The river would be their only guide from now on. At times the path veered away from the rapids, accommodating the abyss of high rocks and trees that made this terrain barely traversable. It was only the sound of raging water that accompanied the footsteps and the heavy breathing of the three. Nature’s unusual silence made it appear that she too, was involved in the conspiracy.
After a particularly long two miles, a break in the density of the forest revealed their destination. About fifty yards down slope from the path was the mouth of a cave.
Just ahead of them, the river forked. A lesser-beaten trail winded to the left, feeding the cave in a nurturing way. To the right, the river raged on in its journey.
A flaming torch that signified that it was indeed the right location softly illuminated the cave. A small canoe awaited their arrival with an envelope perched in the front seat. It was sealed with a wax brand that bore the initials, “TFB.”
Jonathan took the initiative to tear the envelope open and held the letter up to the light beaming from the torch’s flame.
Its contents read:
“Dear citizens of Madina Lake, We thank you for your confidence and commitment in this mission. It was not only our words, but your blind faith that carried you this far and for that we are grateful. This canoe will escort you to us.”
As the last member planted his foot in the boat he pushed off with his other leg and the canoe began to shuttle downstream with the gentle current. For the first two hundred yards or so, it was pitch black. The rapids kicked up and carried the three, at a quicker than comfortable pace, through the twisting rock enclosure, into what seemed to be the depths of the earth. The canoe was governed by something more rational than its current, and more determined. It felt like the cave, the canoe and the water were all part of a unified force, working in synchronicity to ensure the delivery of its passengers. It was intense, but peaceful. Their hearts pounded and the blood coursed through their veins at an accelerated rate.
Within minutes, the vessel was surging through the water like a bullet. Streaks of white light cased the sides of the walls like glowing arrows being slung from ahead. The sounds of the raging waters intensified and mutated into a loud stream of white noise. By now, they had lost all sense of stability and clutched at each desperately, hoping to regain it.
Instead, a sense of absolute weightlessness completely overcame the group, leaving their fates into the hands of powers unknown.
Sheldon awaited Adalia’s arrival with grave anticipation. He was a relative no name in Madina Lake. He was very common, which was exactly what he didn’t want to be. He was a good-looking man, tall and slender with prominent features. His life had become dull and unfulfilled. Normalcy tortured him. He gave forty hours a week away to a desk job, which he despised. His pent up frustration and testosterone was unleashed on weekends. He was known on occasion to drink to a state of belligerence, resulting in antagonistic behavior. A few times a week, he worked the night shift at a popular bar on the main strip off of Sapphire Square. He was well liked among the late night scenesters, by virtue of the fact that he would reliably sling drinks all night long to keep their realities at bay.
His relationship with Adalia was the lone bright spot in his otherwise mundane existence. Still, after a few months of dating, he felt like they had yet to make a real connection. She was attractive and charming and he certainly enjoyed their time together, but their conversations clung to the surface and every time Sheldon attempted to go deeper, she would systematically shut down. Their intimate life was no more fulfilling. It was painful for Sheldon to subdue his desires for her, but she had in no way opened the doors to that possibility.
That’s just what Adalia was, a desire. She was something that everyone wanted but without quite knowing why they wanted it.
Still, he thought to himself how lucky he must be. Very few people can even get close to Adalia, never mind call her his girlfriend. Tonight, their relationship will be displayed to a captive audience and he will have secured his time in the spotlight. And this outcome would be suitable enough for him. He pulled on his white sports coat and ran his fingers through his hair to an obliging reflection in the mirror. One thing is for certain. After tonight, Sheldon’s life will be forever changed.
Whatever force was driving their transport had finally relented, providing mercy to the beckoning canoe. As its velocity subdued, the darkness returned. Up ahead, a sharp light broke through and within minutes the boat emerged into the serenity of daylight.
Jonathan reached into his pocket and pulled out his watch. Squinting to adjust to the contrast, he noticed that it was noon.
Noon? For as treacherous and hair-raising as the journey had been, Jonathan was sure the trip was no more than several minutes. Somewhere along the way they had lost time.
The three found themselves in a stunning blue water lagoon. A waterfall spilled from a break in the mountainside, and cascaded gracefully down the rock. It created an iridescent cloud of mist that glistened in the sun. Wherever they were, it was mythological.
On the bank of the lagoon stood four men. Jonathan felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity with them. He had seen them before, he was certain. Their faces were no strangers to his recollection, but not from this untrodden context.
Part of the school where Jonathan teaches borders a peninsula, which protrudes into the lake that bares the town’s name. Children are often playing in or around the lake after school. There was something about these four men that was very reminiscent of those kids.
The three were invited to join the mysterious men on land and despite a tinge of trepidation from the voyage, they obliged.
One of the men stepped forward and revealed three duffel bags. On each bag read the names of each of the individuals that made this trek.
“Welcome. All of your questions will be answered by the contents of your bags, along with any necessary tools to aid in the success of your mission. If there are any details you would like to discuss, we’ll do so now before we send you back to Madina Lake.”
Jonathan grabbed his bag and riffled through its contents. Among the obscure items was a working pass granting him all access admittance into this year’s Arlene Ball. This of course being the first time he would ever be attending the event since it had become exclusive to another social bracket.
CHAPTER 4 SPELLBIND
The weather couldn’t be more accommodating for tonight’s affair. A sultry June evening, typical of Madina Lake’s climate, left not a cloud in the sky. A smattering of stars captured the imagination of the people. The adornment for the Ball wasn’t limited to the ballroom itself. The entire square was ornamented. Thousands of torches lined the village green. White globes hanged in the sky, while roving spotlights flooded the night with anticipation. Illusionists performed magic for the young ones, while psychics and fortunetellers regaled their parents. A jazz band performed live to the backdrop of a fireworks display over the lake’s horizon. Young children were laughing. Mischievous teenagers found dark corners for their own devilment.
Sapphire Square was on fire. The capacity of the ballroom precluded the vast majority of the crowd from admittance, but the spirit of this tradition electrified everyone.
Conversely, behind the ballroom it was dark and peaceful. The building rests on the southern most tip of the lakeshore. About two hundred yards of grotto, cabanas and flower-lined walkways graced the luscious grounds between the ballroom and the lake. This area would fill up with lovers and others as the evening progresses.
The preparations were complete in the Ballroom. A set of symmetrical marble staircases climbed to the grand entrance of this exalted piece of architectural brilliance. The red carpets rolled down each and were fastened into place by event workers. Just minutes from now, this area would be covered in a vast sea of people.
A gross irony has developed around the Ball. Its original intent had been to draw the community together in a celebration of unity. In that spirit, it had been free and open to all. Everyone attended, each contributing whatever they had to offer towards the successful organization and execution of the event. In the beginning, they came together as equals.
Somewhere along the way, this concept was lost. Instead, the event had become a litmus test for a person’s social standing. Now, money and vanity were the engines driving the affair. Those in attendance were wealthy, famous, beautiful or connected. The rest were welcomed only in their capacity to provide adulation to an elitist sect.
The preposterousness of it was lost on all. One would be inclined to think that the unwanted would ultimately unite to bring down this lace curtain, but they didn’t. Nor did this elitism foster resentment. By in large, it perpetuated the dream and hope in those left out, to one day penetrates the coveted circle of the top echelon. In the meantime, they’d live vicariously, engrossed in admiration, through the beautiful people.
The values of this society had been categorically depleted.
A sleek black limousine eased its way up the street towards Sheldon’s apartment with Adalia as its lone passenger. From there, the car would make the final stop to pick up Pandora and her date before heading to the Ball.
Pandora was an illustrious and beautiful woman. A blond bombshell with a razor sharp tongue and an unpredictable spirit, she was the product of an unfortunate upbringing. Her father Victor had been an entirely narcissistic man who, for the most part, had nothing to do with her. Having never wanted a child of his own, he divorced Pandora’s mother shortly after she was born. Her mother’s own instincts weren’t much better. Since her husband left them, she felt inordinately burdened by Pandora and offloaded as much of her maternal responsibilities as she could. She was her own top priority. As far as she was concerned, the alimony checks that rolled in dutifully fulfilled her mothering responsibility. Simultaneously, each parent lined Pandora’s pockets with money as a sick form of compensation for their delinquency. Pandora, consequently, was raised with a very cold silver spoon in her mouth. She was taught to believe that money and desirability defined a person’s value and standing in the community.
Her friendship with Adalia was one of convenience more than anything else. They had their moments of affinity, but from an outside perspective, it wasn’t difficult to see that Pandora had ulterior motives in perpetuating the relationship. Pandora was Adalia’s pilot fish. She consumed every morsel of attention that spilled off of Adalia. She’d made a habit of aligning herself with the town’s latest infatuations to keep her own name and likeness in the headlines. She would never comprehend how unfulfilling and futile this pattern was. And so it continued to be her strategy of choice. As asinine as it was, it worked. She, too, was an object of envy in this town.
Sheldon stepped into the limousine and greeted his prize with a nervous kiss on the cheek. A few minutes down the road, the car pulled over to pick up Pandora and her date Chas.
Pandora was outfitted in a glamorous, custom, off-the-shoulder satin gown from an exclusive designer. She accessorized with gorgeous silver-and-topaz chandelier earrings. Even Sheldon couldn’t help but notice she was dazzling. As would be expected, they all were. And now, they were on their way.
As incredibly serene and peaceful as the setting was, Jonathan was too focused to allow anything beyond their words in his scope. They had a good deal of information to digest in a short amount of time. While the task to which they’d committed held great significance for each of them and their collective world, it carried great risk and certain danger in tandem. It was a mission that pushed both moral and ethical boundaries far past any comfortable limits. Furthermore, certain improprieties would ultimately be required of them in order to achieve the necessary outcome.
Few had the fortitude for a challenge of this nature. Most would dismiss it out of hand. Those who possessed the sovereign integrity required accepting the mission had to take quite a leap of faith. They were equipped with the means to comprehend the magnitude of something larger than themselves.
Ultimately, the end would have to justify the means. And in this circumstance, the end is deserving of all means.
After a few hours spent debriefing with their hosts, they re-boarded the canoe to reverse the whole sequence of events that had brought them there. Upon a successful return to the forest, another glance at Jonathan’s watch revealed that it was 8 pm. Whatever time had been lost along the journey had been found again. Jonathan slung his bag over his shoulder and headed off. He raced back to town to prepare for the long night ahead. Curiously, he hadn’t seen the other two since emerging back through the other side of the cave.
Back in Sapphire Square, the night was igniting. From their first steps onto the red carpet, Adalia and her entourage were greeted with flash bulbs and pandemonium. They jostled their way through the crowd, up the spiral staircase and into the main entrance of the hall. The place was spectacular. In the gothic revivalist style ballroom, three massive crystal chandeliers dropped from the soaring domed ceiling. Gold dominated the décor and deep red accents contributed as well, reflective of the lavish character of the Ball’s patrons. The main bar was on the south end of the room and overlooked the sunken dance floor below and center. Two smaller bars were on either side of the stage and a third was up on the balcony level. The northern wall of the ballroom was one awe-inspiring sheet of glass, framing the arrestingly pristine view. It showcased the radiant gardens outside stretching all the way to the water lapping at the lakeshore. The light from the moon and star speckled sky shattered on the water into millions of glistening beams.
The energy in the room was palpable. The crowd was intoxicated by the glamour, the glitz and the majesty of it all. The food was succulent, the dancing was well underway and the alcohol was seeping into the bloodlines of the star fortuned attendees.
These sorts of functions stirred a bit of anxiety in Sheldon, that a drink would suitably tend to.
“The usual for everyone?” he offered to the group. With their approval he headed for the main bar. The others positioned themselves centrally for maximal viewing and exposure.
There was a sea of people in all directions. Some were gossiping, some were dancing and others were just onlookers to an evening they surely would never forget.
Feeling not quite ready to socialize, Adalia eluded it for the moment by grabbing Pandora by the hand and escorting her to the dance floor. It didn’t work for very long.
“Good evening Adalia,” uttered a voice from behind them.
Her stomach dropped.
Adalia certainly didn’t expect to see him here.
They’d been the best of friends in their youth, inseparable from the age of two on. They shared in common their respective broken childhoods, in a small impoverished corner of town. As children, they played together and they dreamed together. In fact, they only had each other. As their adolescence lapsed, reality overpowered their imagination. It could no longer disarm the haunts of their home lives. To Forrest, his best friend grew sad and withdrawn. He tried to probe a little, to figure out what was going on with her. Adalia stepped around these conversations, getting emotional at times, but usually evading the subject with her quick wit.
Once, in a quiet moment between them, she alluded to leaving town. Forrest was surprised. He’d always been the one who wanted to get out. He was so sure that this void of belonging, and acceptance, that escaped them, could be filled somewhere else. And so when he fantasized about the two of them running away together to seek their fame and fortune, he was shattered that she didn’t reciprocate. Evidently she’d had plans of her own as one-day, she was simply gone.
It was years before Forrest saw her again. When she did return, it was into a dramatically different circumstance than the one that once unified them. Adalia was instantly heralded as the irresistible socialite, while his life continued to pain him. In the meantime, his deep affection for her had turned to obsession. Alone, socially rejected and personally tormented, he was desperate to maintain any thread of connection to her. She was torn by her guilt for having abandoned him and her increasing uneasiness over having any public relationship with him.
Forrest was a complicated and unpredictable man. It was disconcerting to Adalia that if her secret did escape her, he’s the only man it could have fled to. Not knowing was the challenge. Forrest may hold the shadowy truth to her past and that would jeopardize everything. For that reason, she had installed a barrier between them.
It took Jonathan less than half the time to return from the cave than it had taken to get to it. Upon his return, he went straight back to his apartment to shower and get ready. He pulled a tailored black tuxedo from his bag. The last thing he’d ever expected to do this evening was to attend the Ball. After inhaling a deep breath, he composed himself and returned to the task at hand. He lifted the phone from its receiver and dialed in his alibi.
“I’ll be staying in tonight. If I plan on catching up from my absence, I’d better get to work.”
Now cleaned up and dressed to kill, Jonathan slipped out of his apartment and flagged down a taxi rather quickly.
Pandora excused herself to allow Adalia and Forrest to have their chat. Only a thin glass wall separated her actions from their selfish motivation. The situation served her no purpose and wasn’t her problem, so she relieved herself of its awkwardness.
The band was electrifying and seduced many guests from their seats. Pandora frolicked on the dance floor by herself. She reveled in the fact that every woman’s man was gawking at her. Her date was far from her site, and even further from her mind. The floor began flooding with dancers. As usual, Pandora had a cluster of men whirling around her. Through the crowd she noticed someone from her past as well. It was her ex-boyfriend Charles. She left him about six months ago, having convinced herself she could do better. Charles was well to do, but humble about it. He was a seemingly good man, but far too subdued for Pandora. He lacked the danger and flare that could be useful to her.
Although he had moments of anguish about their break up, they were fleeting. Another woman snatched up his heart. Pandora lamented in regret for leaving him, but it was too late. Most of the pain leaped from his heart to hers.
None of this would stop her from pursuing, with entitlement, everything that she wanted. She glided her way up behind him and whispered in his ear.
“How about we go a round for old times?”
“Certainly no surprise you would be here,” he said with an undeniably bitter tone.
“She’ll never give you what I gave you Charles. And might I add I fancied you to have better taste in woman after dating me. You must have me racing around that head of yours all the time,” she ranted.
A spiritless dance ensued just to sustain the conversation.
“Only to remind me of the tragic difference between lust and love, and how one can deceive the other by merely resembling it. Lust blinds your heart to the blackness it may succumb to. I think of you to recognize how much it gratifies me that I’ve managed to procure lust by starting with love Pandora.”
“The problem with your little theory Charles is that lust is immortal. Once it has lived and breathed inside of you it won’t ever leave.”
“While I find your conceited presumptions to be slightly charming, your arrogance serves to push you further and further from my heart.”
But this wasn’t entirely true. There was something curious about Charles. He had seen red before.
The dance intensified somewhat.
“Then why are we still having this conversation?” she challenged.
“While the way you dance may turn me on, you know that I’m spoken for Pandora. Now if you’ll pardon me, there’s someone else far more enticing waiting for me.”
As quickly as he came into her vision, he was gone. Although cold and heartless, Pandora was not impervious to the sting of rejection. She wrestled the tears of humiliation and scampered off the floor.
The taxi rolled into Sapphire Square.
“Pull around to the service entry, will you?” he shyly uttered.
Jonathan paid the fare, got out of the cab and headed for the side door. It was propped open for the staff so that they could sneak in and out for a quick smoke if a break should allow. Before entering, he took a minute to calm his nerves.
While he leaned against the brick wall, impressions from the day flooded his mind. Those four men at the lagoon had seemed so familiar, yet he hadn’t been able to place them. And now as he tried to conjure up their images, instead he kept seeing the faces of some of his students. As if they were intruding upon the moment at hand, he kept trying to squeeze them out. But no, there was definitely a connection. In some inexplicable way, he could not separate the men from those students. And trying to make sense of it was burdening him.
Regardless, this was not the time to ponder it any further. He gathered himself and slipped in through the propped door. He immediately recognized and made eye contact with one of the others from the Cave. Everything appeared to be in order. He grabbed a tray of hors d’oeuvres and bustled through the swinging doors to survey the ballroom.
Forrest had compromised Adalia’s position. She was on the spot and he forced her hand.
“Let me ask you something, Adalia. Why do you still humor me in this fractured relationship? You always respond kindly to my letters. What is it that you gain from this?”
“Forrest, I never meant to close you out of my life. I had to make some difficult choices and, in some ways, it cost me dearly,” she lamented.
“And so what is it that you chose? Was it all of this, this artificial existence? I refuse to believe that, Adalia. I know you too well. People don’t change that drastically. And even if it were so, after all everything we were to each other, why would you just leave me behind?” he asserted.
“I’m afraid, Forrest, there are some things you just can’t understand. Things you shouldn’t have to understand,” she pleaded.
Without pause for a response, Adalia turned and scurried away.
The truth is, Adalia was only slightly more informed than Forrest as to what had in fact happened to her at the time of her disappearance. It was a demon that she had been struggling with ever since that murky day eleven years ago. She suffered from Source Amnesia. And this particular day in question was a blurry haze to her that she couldn’t pretend to be fully cognoscente of. As she’d often done when the stress at home became intolerable, she retreated out into the forest by herself. It offered her an escape. There, she concocted a host of imaginary friends that would comfort her in turbulent times. On that particular day, however, something unusual happened. A shadowy apparition emerged from the woods where she sat on a blanket in her usual clearing. This location was her sanctity. The only reason the memory stands out is because it was the first time that anyone besides Forrest had intruded her solace there, and what happened next is something that has abandoned her recollection forever.
She realized long ago that Forrest could in fact hold the key that would unlock the mystery of that day. However, so much had happened to her since she left that she would be forced to wait until the time was right to have that conversation with him.
On the other side of the Ball, Sheldon returned to the group, his hands busy with their third round of Martinis.
“Uh, now where did she go?” he asked, glancing around for Adalia.
“Oh, she’s probably in the middle of that throng on the dance floor. She’ll surface soon,” offered Pandora.
“Has she seemed preoccupied to you?” Sheldon ventured.
“You know how big an ordeal these events can be for someone like her, Sheldon, I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” Pandora offered,
“Oh and I must interrogate you about something you devil. I couldn’t help but notice you speaking to my hideous ex Charles? May I ask how you know one another?”
A caught off guard Sheldon hesitated before responding, ” I don’t know whom you are talking about, I don’t think you saw me speaking to anyone Pandora.”
“He’s over there in the black tuxedo, standing at the bar, you were with him for several minutes, what was it that you were discussing?” she pressed.
“I truly don’t know what you are talking about, and I don’t know that man. I thought we were talking about my disappearing date? Let’s carry on, shall we?”
It’s exciting here. The people are dazzling. Their insatiable thirst for the spotlight fosters incredulous fashion and radiant behavior. As the evening progresses, the general volume of the room increases in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol being consumed. The conversations are consistent in their nature. Nobody talks of ideas, politics or significant events. They only talk about other people. They spread rumors and gossip and dish on who looks good and who does not. But it was all a cover up. It was the scarecrow they propped up in each of their own infested gardens to deflect the attention from their peccadilloes. Even the top rungs of this society have skeletons tucked away deep in their closets. Everyone is so caught up in the drama that screams under the spotlight, that they’ve neglected that which sets their own backyards ablaze.
The night carries on in this manner for a long time. As the hours pass, the boundaries of the party expand to the outdoor area behind the ballroom as guests journey about. In the usual fashion, drinking was the impetus for many conversations that otherwise would not have taken place.
Pandora and the crew were patronizing a conversation with Lucille.
“Lucille, be a dear and ask your crystal ball how you were fortunate enough to attend the ball tonight will you?” cracked Pandora to a mild purr of laughter from her friends.
With her usual cool and unfettered demeanor, she replied, “I’m afraid if I asked my ball anything in your presence Pandora, its reaction would be sad for all of us here.”
“Oh? And why is that Lucille, sad that you all can’t possess the dashing beauty that I do?” she responded, but this time to far less laughs than the first comment.
“It would be curious, like myself Pandora, if your insides were made of crumpled newspaper, and what on Earth ticks your pulse?”
The engagement extended itself when Lucille’s expression turned serious. The truth is, her gaze did reveal something. Nothing that she felt compelled or interested in sharing with her antagonist, but certainly something grabbed her attention. The seeing window turned black. Lucille’s ball has never expressed this and her visceral reaction was puzzling and slightly alarming to her. Lucille really had no ax to grind with Pandora. She was unaffected by those who didn’t appreciate her. In truth, Lucille felt something sinister from her reading glass. It was an intense feeling of malady, as if Pandora had a dark star of fortune looming over her head.
In the meantime, Adalia had taken the opportunity to break away from the crowd again, this time leaving the ballroom altogether. She needed to be alone. And so heading down the brick walkway towards the lake, she found a quiet place off one of the pathways and retreated there. Sitting back, she breathed in the fresh mountain air that rolled in over the lake, trying to clear her mind. After several minutes, she’d achieved an almost meditative state, reclaiming some of the calm that had mostly eluded her in recent days. Unfortunately, the serenity was short-lived.
“It’s beautiful here under the moon,” Forrest intruded. He had tracked her down. In fact, he must have been following her throughout the evening to find her here. He took the liberty of sitting down next to her and fixed his gaze in the same aimless direction of hers, towards the open sky.
Adalia had so much she wanted to say to him, but she couldn’t find the words. She understood and she was very sorry for his hurt, but there was no way he could understand this charade of hers. So instead, she sat in silence. It didn’t deter him. He was determined to get something off of his chest.
“I’m amazed how things can change. How the real world can chase our dreams away.”
He took her hand. She allowed it, but uneasily.
“You know we can run away from all this. Run away from everything you have, from everything you hate. Just like we always talked about,” he proposed.
His voice grew fervent and angry.
“Where did you go, Adalia? Why did you run? How did you give in so easily? I’d rather they bury me!” he shouted.
Adalia ripped her hand away from his and ran off into the night. He let her go.
The patio and deck that extend off of the ballroom’s back was swelling with attendees. An elixir of laudation and alcohol inebriated Pandora. Her nameless, faceless date would do for now. She grabbed his forearm and carelessly ripped him away from his conversation. In that pouty, childlike voice she demanded, “I want to have sex. With you. right now, down by the water. Come.”
She began unzipping his pants before they’d even moved out of sight. She stepped in front and angled him off to the left of the pathway behind a stone bench. He meekly mumbled her name in a confused tone. She knelt to her knees and began to arouse him, which hadn’t been necessary at this point. He remained inertly silent. Her egregiousness was unnerving to him, but thrown so quickly into the circumstance, he froze discomfited. It was erotic and he wouldn’t lie to himself that this was the stuff of garish fantasies, but he quickly learned that these things should be left for the imagination. This particular public forum deeply disconcerted him. She stood up and leaned over a bench, pulling him inside her from behind while she unabashedly moaned with spurious pleasure.
It didn’t last more than three minutes.
Strangely, after he had climaxed, she implored him to carry on.
“Pandora, I can’t just…”
“You can and you will. At least fake it!” she commanded.
That’s when he put the pieces together. From the corner of his eye, he saw Charles and his new love, just feet away. The sick charade prompted him to redress and disperse in disgust.
CHAPTER 5 THE DISAPPEARANCE
Jonathan was growing anxious. His initial set of instructions had been fairly straightforward: secure certain logistical information about the ballroom; track down and confirm the presence of certain individuals expected to be in attendance that evening, report those findings and receive additional instructions.
Easy enough, he’d thought. And initially, he’d been right. In a matter of minutes, he’d cased the room, recording the information he could surmise immediately in a small notebook; he then moved on to checking the list of names.
Among others, his list had included Adalia, Pandora, Sheldon, Forrest, and Lucille. He’d had no problem tracking down most of them. But Lucille, he couldn’t find. More importantly, Adalia, too, was missing. This could prove to be a devastating blow to the mission. If he couldn’t find Adalia there, someone would have to go to her apartment.
The party was finally winding down. A few clusters of people were still bantering in and around the area, but the music and dancing had long ceased and, the majority of the crowd had dissipated. It had been quite some time since Sheldon or anyone else in the group had seen Adalia. A restless Pandora didn’t care to wait around for her to turn up. Her polarized emotions from rejection to heartbreak evoked the desire for another drink.
“I’ll take everyone to Sheldon’s bar, we have a table waiting. She’s not our date Forrest, that’s on you,” she spewed acrimoniously.
“You’re a nasty creature Pandora. While I enjoy witnessing it, when your evil scope dials me in, no thanks. Go ahead everyone.” Sheldon stayed behind, assuring the others they’d meet up with them shortly.
Pandora’s actions are increasingly intolerable by more and more people. The sad truth is where it comes from. When an insatiable desire for attention becomes an obsession devoid of reason, there is a personality disorder. She represents the perfect brew of a narcissistic father and a loveless mother. This is another new ailment that has infected Madina Lake. Eerily, this behavior carries a tax that will impose itself however and whenever it seems fit.
A quick jaunt through the Square had them at the bar within minutes. The after-hours scene was quite crowded on nights like this. Sheldon’s employment at one of the hottest spots in town certainly behooved the group. They circumvented the long line and gained entry immediately. Despite the annoying delay in leaving the Ball in the first place, at this point, their moods remained jubilant.
Once inside, they secured their usual booth by the window to satisfy their wishes to see and be seen. The whole bar was pie-eyed by this time. Any concern over Adalia’s whereabouts had fled her friends’ minds by the time they sat down. A borderline belligerent Pandora continued to display her unique brand of charm through her antagonizing of others. She slung seemingly innocuous insults to any passerby and to the delight of her immediate company. She had no idea that her insidious behavior was about to catch up to her.
Meanwhile, Sheldon’s uneasiness was escalating rapidly. He’d just completed his third round, in and out of the grottos, down to the lake and back to front of the square. He’d turned the Ballroom inside out and questioned every lingering partygoer. There was no trace of her anywhere. A feeling of utter helplessness completely enveloped him.
“Adalia!” he shouted through the trees, over the lake, throughout the ballroom. He heard only his panic stricken echo in response. What if something had happened to her? It wasn’t even the thought of losing her that distressed him so much. Darker thoughts dominated his mind. Everyone knew she was in his hands tonight, and consequently, he’d be a suspect.
At this point, the rest of the evening was lost. It had twisted into a drunken blur shrouded in mystery and confusion.
CHAPTER 6 A SILENCE SO FIERCE
It was a dark morning. Storm clouds rolled in over the western mountaintops. Loud cracks of thunder and heavy rain subdued much of the day’s usual activity. It was 10:00am, and the town had just been rocked by the news that Adalia has been missing since the early hours of that morning. This kind of thing doesn’t happen here, which is why the news spread so quickly and carried a sinister implication with its delivery. This was bigger than gossip. All the people, in the diners, the salons, the pubs, and the park, were debating various theories.
Adalia’s disappearance had shaken this town to its core.
By 11:00am the search ensued.
Investigators arrived at Adalia’s apartment.
The magnificent smell of Adalia’s perfume lightly lingered in the air.
The authorities had failed drastically to secure the scene. The apartment was littered with investigators, reporters, and curious onlookers. It was easy for lurkers to get in and wonder about, shaking up evidence and even taking some. And they did. Her personal items would be of great value if she continued to go missing, and even more so if they found her body and it was in fact a murder. It became quickly apparent that the police were not the first to arrive at the scene, since the disappearance. A jar of ink was spilled on Adalia’s vanity area where she did her letter writing and journal keeping. The ink was still dripping, indicating with relative certainty that someone had been in her apartment between the disappearance and this morning. If it were her who knocked it over before the Ball, it would have dried by now. The forensics team pulled a few fingerprints from the apartment, but this would already prove to be a challenging case.
The only other evidence produced during the search was the “Auspice” message, which was propped up on her vanity, and a cache of letters that were written or received by Adalia. The correspondences were between her and an unknown source. Each letter was written in code, and signed with the initials T.F.B..
Nights like last leave nothing but a foggy trail of half events. Reconstructing an evening that was this inebriated would be an arduous task for any investigator. They confiscated a number of items from the Ballroom, one of them being the guest list. They started at the top and interviewed everyone they could find who was in attendance. For the most part, peoples’ stories were the same and were corroborated by the people they were with. Everyone recalled seeing Adalia throughout the first half of the Ball, but not towards the end of it.
The investigation ultimately focused in on the group she arrived with and those with whom they had conversations with throughout the night. Repeated attempts to contact Pandora via the telephone didn’t work. Investigators dispatched to her house found something interesting. Her apartment was unlocked. The place was a mess. It looked like there could have been a struggle. Some clothes and her purse and make up were strewn about in a violent manor. The other suggestion was that she stopped by her place in a rush, threw together what bare essentials she may need for a few days and fled.
And this would be the theory they operated on. They figured Pandora knew she wasn’t well liked, and would ultimately be a focal point in this investigation. She must hold damning information, grew scared and left. But where could she have gone? None of her friends would take her in because of the nature of such a crime and her suspected role in it. She certainly wasn’t brave enough to flee to the forest. Even if it weren’t true, the mere thought of the white clad “river people” would surely keep her within the town’s limits.
Lucille, being so eclectic and given that she was seen talking with Pandora last night, became a person of interest as well. Two investigators made their way across town to the area where Lucille
lived. It was clearly a questionable part of town. It was the part of town that the affluent chose not to acknowledge. There wasn’t much obvious street crime in Madina Lake, but if it were to exist, this is where it would happen. They climbed the stairs to reach Lucille’s studio. When they knocked on the door and announced themselves through the wood, there was audible movement inside, and no response. The investigators banged on the door louder. The rustling was picking up, a clear indication of someone in panic.
After a few moments, they kicked the door down and barged in. The window was flung open and nobody was inside. Her apartment was on the third floor. It’s doubtful that she would have jumped, but whoever was inside, was no longer there. They scrambled for the window and examined the area outside. There was no sign of anyone.
The investigators drew their attention to a workstation set up in the corner of the unit. On it was Lucille’s infamous crystal ball.
While one looked for more evidence, the other picked up the ball and gazed into it’s mysterious reading window.
“Detective, you need to see this.”
He dropped what he was doing and rushed over, grabbing the ball from his hands.
As he peered into it, he saw something he certainly didn’t expect. It looked like a scene from a postcard. It was a pristine blue water lagoon. A man was standing on the edge of the water bank appearing to grab an onlooker’s attention. The detective intensified his gaze and asked for silence in the room. A faint voice was emanating from the reading window. It was the man in the image. He could barely make out the words but he could hear
“Lucille” repeated over and over.
“Something has gone wrong Lucille,” the man said. The rest was indiscernible.
The investigators phoned in a report of their findings to headquarters, packed up the crystal and headed out.
In another part of town, officers were trying to hunt down Forrest. Not many people knew him, and they had to canvas the neighborhood thoroughly to find just a few people who had anything to say about him. From those few, it was abundantly clear that he was not well liked and had long ago been dismissed as a misfit. Ultimately, they reached one man who claimed to have known his family. He told police that Forrest had come through a rough childhood. His father was a schizophrenic who had been institutionalized since Forrest was an infant. The doctor’s rudimentary methods of therapy included repeated shock treatments, which effectively lobotomized the man’s conscience, trapping his dark soul inside. Forrest’s mother was an angry alcoholic and very often abused him. His only source of comfort through all this was his friend Adalia. When she left the neighborhood, the man said, Forrest slipped into an angry downward spiral from which he has never recovered.
This new information put the spotlight squarely back on Forrest. His past relationship with Adalia, his own personal history of anger and abuse, and several confirmed sightings of him talking with her that night landed him high on the suspect list.
Back at police headquarters, the frustrations were mounting. Besides the victim, the prime suspects in her disappearance were all missing as well. While tips were pouring in, none had proven useful and sorting through them was consuming valuable time and resources. The few clues they had pointed seemingly nowhere. The truth was they had far more questions than answers.
One particularly vexing question was, what possible connection could have existed between Lucille and Adalia? What motive would there have been for her involvement in Adalia’s disappearance? And if she wasn’t involved, why then did she flee? Similarly, why had Pandora and Forrest both gone missing? If there were a significant relationship between those two, the investigation had not uncovered it. Sheldon, too, seemed like a logical suspect, but he was accounted for most of that evening and had, so far, been cooperating with the investigation. Plus, without a body, the investigators weren’t even clear on what they were dealing with. Was it a murder, a kidnapping or something altogether different? In this hopeless hour, it seemed that short of a major breakthrough, the investigation was cooling off at a dangerous rate.
A forensic officer sat with a collection of fingerprints that were lifted from Adalia’s apartment. This was a laborious process. Of the short list of suspects, only Forrest had his prints on file, making him naturally the first search. The detectives milled about with the tension of a rapidly ticking clock and a frenzied public, breathing down their necks.
The forensics officer oscillated his magnifying glass over a print pulled from the ink jar and Forrest’s print. He meticulously scanned each arching line in the swirling nature of a fingerprint. There was something here. He checked and rechecked his work before calling another officer to corroborate his work. He handed him the magnifying glass and pointed to the two prints in question. There was a match.
And at that moment, the phone at police headquarters rang.
A frantically quivering voice screamed through the receiver. The caller was breathing so heavily, his words were almost inaudible.
“I know … where the body is.”
“Who is this? Tell us your name.”
“She was burned badly … I’m so sorry.”
“Sir, what is your name?”
“She’s down by the lake, behind the school … 50 yards south of the dock. Look in the brush.”
“Who? Whose body, sir?”
And the line went dead.
Within minutes, the search crews were rerouted to the school and began combing the lakeshore. A cluster of brush, sprawled unnaturally into the water, drew their attention. The water was not deep here, maybe three feet, but very murky. The search crew worked their way slowly through the brush towards the section in question, careful to minimize contamination to this potential crime scene. Nobody made a sound. In spite of the hundreds of false leads phoned into police headquarters since Adalia’s disappearance, there was something about this one that felt all too real … as if the victim’s very own spirit were overseeing this operation, waiting to be discovered, waiting to go free. Today, they would find her.
After several minutes, one investigator found the charred remains of what appeared to be an earring, silver with yellow gemstones, but saw nothing else in the immediate area. Moments later, though, another investigator rolled back a stack of branches, unexpectedly unleashing a terrible stench. He turned and retched in horror at the sight.
A large black, shredded garbage bag covered most of a floating mass that emerged from the water. What could be seen of the bag’s contents appeared to be a body burned so badly that it was difficult to distinguish from the blackness of the bag and of the water beneath it. What gave it away was the clearly identifiable jawbone, its teeth still intact that protruded from a tear in the bag. The others looked on in a state of tragic disbelief.
This quiet would prove to be the calm before the storm.
By this time, word of the schoolyard tip had reached some of the locals and a crowd developed by the lake. From their vantage point, they couldn’t clearly see what was happening, but it was obvious when a body bag was carried from the lake to an ambulance. And so the rumors swirled like a hurricane. Convinced it was Adalia’s remains, the people began constructing their own versions of what took place. While the case was still under investigation, the police had surmised with little doubt that the bones were in fact those of Adalia.
A silence so fierce screamed over the entire town. The inhabitants of this once peaceful land were engulfed in a feeling that, until now, they hadn’t ever slowed down enough to experience.
The character in their world that they adored the most was lost. The envy of a thousand souls, in an instant had turned to sorrow. How this happened was a mind twister, but why this happened was something people may begin to understand.
Only a few days passed until the investigation went cold. Forrest and Pandora had vanished. Their conviction of Forrest being the killer was solid and could stand to pacify the townspeople to some degree. But another concern developed. Sheldon, who had been fully cooperative at first, suddenly vanished too. The detectives were in over their heads. Was it possible that the missing suspects would turn up as more victims, or did this plot stretch to include co-conspirators?
A rudimentary autopsy was conducted to determine the cause of death. It appeared that the victim had suffered from blunt force trauma to the head and in fact, was most likely the cause of death. The examiner also discovered broken bones on multiple fingers, pointing to a struggle just before the death. The burning was just a hasty, panic induced attempt by the killer to destroy the evidence.
June 25, 1951
Nobody stepped forward as Adalia’s next of kin, so several members of the community came together to plan her funeral. Her prodigious popularity complicated matters, as more than half of the community was expected to attend. To accommodate this, organizers decided to hold the memorial services outdoors on the quad by the river. Adalia had lived nearby and spent hours and hours in the park, a place near and dear to her heart.
The scene was hauntingly beautiful. A large canopy was constructed about thirty feet from the riverbank, with velour curtains draped down the back and sides. A spectacular display of red roses coated the perimeter of the area, while white carnations and daisies filled the canopy with a peaceful scent.
People flooded in droves to pay their respects to someone they didn’t even know. That so many attended her funeral was an interesting phenomenon in and of its self.
One might have assumed that it was just an extension of the fascination they’d had with her when she was alive. It was just one more opportunity to see and be seen. But somehow, this yielded an entirely different feeling. There was a genuine sense of sorrow that could be felt throughout the congregation. Perhaps this was a sign of some foresight developing in the minds of these inhabitants where no such thing existed before. A real sense of actionable consequence had stirred.
It was an indication that their livelihood was thwarted at some point in history. If they continued obsessing with their empty souls, they would ultimately demise. And this was the inexorable truth.
For the first time, the general public felt like they could identify with her in some small way. The status they’d conferred upon her when she was alive had rendered her untouchable and above the rest of them. How sad that only through her death was she finally recognized as vulnerable, as human, just like the rest of them. What enormous pressure they had placed on her, pressure to be all that they asserted her to be. And to what end? Some wondered if it was her fame that ultimately led to her brutal death. Was it the lifestyle, that she was forced to enact by the people, the true perpetrator behind this? Very recently, most people would have exchanged lives with Adalia in a heartbeat, perhaps, even still. But this tragedy surely sent ripples through a community that had, up until now, remained largely fleeced of its values.
The ceremony was to be underway any minute now.
The long line of people filed in and took their seats, with the last few scrambling to find a suitable spot. Noticeably absent were those presumably closest to Adalia. Pandora and Forrest hadn’t been seen since the early morning of Adalia’s disappearance. And her larger circle of so-called friends had, contrary to the sentiment of the general public, wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and this horrifying tragedy. Just one week ago, they enjoyed every bit of the attention their association with Adalia provided them. But now, something had changed. Arrogance had been humbled. Some greater force of nature had made its appearance in Madina Lake, reminding them of their relative inconsequence in this world and, in that process, knocking the wind out of their overconfident, materialistic and shallow selves.
While the crowd patiently waited for the ceremony to begin, two latecomers approached from the distance. One of them was Jonathan. His companion, a woman, was unidentifiable for the fact that her face was covered with a black veil. The rest of her body was similarly cloaked in dark and unseasonably heavy clothes. She was hunched over in a manner suggestive of a much older woman. As she passed, she left a delicate, beautiful scent in her wake. The two inconspicuously took seats at the back of the congregation. She clung to him tightly and buried her head in his shoulder.
As was customary in Madina Lake, a small string ensemble performed as the eulogy was delivered. The performers looked ethereal in white and the sad, soft vibration of the cello strings added even another dimension to the mournfulness of the occasion. The potency of this travesty couldn’t be quantified. As a group, they sat in resolute silence. Individually, each was steeped in a state of dark introspection.
In the middle of his eulogy the minister’s voice suddenly trailed off. The audience members looked to him and then followed his gaze to see what had distracted him. From every direction emanated a mass of whiteness. From the lakefront, the sprawling quad, the forest, the streets, young men and women, dressed all in white, slowly converged on the funeral service. Each was carrying a single stick candle and wearing masquerade masks over their faces. As they closed in on the gathering, several audience members gasped in surprise and confusion. Heads were spinning. Notably, the musicians played on unaffected by the unconcealed imposition.
It was clear that these visitors wished, naively, for some level of anonymity for themselves. Or perhaps the Venetian style flare was intended to have the opposite effect. These particular masks were commonly used to signify triumphant processions. Was this some implication of victory? Of these uninvited guests, only four would have been recognizable to anyone from Madina Lake. These four were local kids. But among the others, their particular identities went completely unnoticed. They formed a complete circle around the congregation and silently joined in the mourning.
…….continued with Scorched Earth from “Attics To Eden”